The Ancestors



Randy Weston is a giant in stature and musically. His music pulls the archaic Harlem into the archaic north Africa. In this there lay the most profound kind of jazz myth, the archetypal, sonic myth that proposes the ur-impulse of Great Black Music. And, this furthermore, to borrow from the philosophy of the Chicago avant-garde, tells of human origins expressed in sound from the ancient to the future. Africa was our originating locale. The mythic centering idea of what I term School of Ellington(*) is that its artists are all playing ‘Africa.’

On April 6, Randy Weston turns 85. His debut record was released the year I was born, 1954. In 1972, CTI issued Weston’s Blue Moses. I started working full time as manager of a record store that year, and my boss, loving everything CTI and KUDU, often played the record. I was, at the time, not even a year into my obsessive enthusiasm for jazz. Blue Moses was one of the first big band records I ever heard, along with Miles Davis, and Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess. But the Davis records don’t shout and the Weston record does. I got ‘it’ right off the bat. It probably was Harvey Pekar who told me in the store one day, “It’s the worst record Weston ever made.” Whoever offered their vertical opinion, it caused me to be intrigued.

[audio:|titles=Ganawa (Blue Moses)]
Ganawa Blue (Blue Moses) from Blue Moses

Tanjah was released in 1973, another big band record. But, there wasn’t anything else I could take in. I was out of luck. I filed my enthusiasm away and bought Blue Moses and Tanjah and wore it out. There was no recourse to searching out Weston as a sideman because he was unique in forging a career under his own name right from almost the beginning of his career. Appearances on other artist’s records were scant and not available in any case. The flood of Weston reissues didn’t commence until three years later, and it wasn’t until 1976 that deliverance was at hand, out of chronological order and seemingly all at once. Into my musical world came the Riverside trios, the United Artists and Jubilee sides, along with the contemporaneous Freedom records.

Among the masters in the School of Ellington, it is Weston who expression of the transformation of Harlem into Africa resonates most deeply. I have witnessed live only his mate in the confrere of Ellington, Abdullah Ibrahim, more times. And, with these two exponents, the circle has been drawn tightly between the impulses provided by South Africa in the case of Dr. Ibrahim, and North Africa in Weston’s case.

Randy Weston - Functional (from The Way I Feel Now)

I once sat on the stage next to Randy after a seminar he gave at the Discover Jazz Festival (in Burlington, Vermont.) I asked him about the relationship between the two ends of Africa. I don’t, alas, recall the details of his response, but it echoed Ibrahim’s sketch of the ancient history of music, through which the medicinal and healing quotient of African sound spread throughout the continent as a matter of the sharing of the vital efficacy of various musical antidotes. Music was the language that possessed universal features which needed little translation.

His piano style was fully formed by 1959. Weston is a traditionalist when viewed as a stylist within a universal African sonic context. On record, when he settles down to work through Ellington and Monk, his essays of president and provost are without exception profound and diamond-like. Fifty-five years later, Weston’s body of recorded work supports his visionary and mystical role. He serves, fundamentally, as a guide to the deep spiritual wellspring of Harlem-by-way-of-Africa.

He has been playing his original repertoire with a working band for the better part of thirty years. When he comes to town, it is a must-hear opportunity. (We’re lucky in Cleveland because his good friend and co-writer of his autobiography African Rhythms, Willard Jenkins, has helped bring him here many times.) There are many highlights in my experience of Weston up close. Hearing him play solo at The East Cleveland Library several years ago was very special. He basically turned the small meeting space into an African church.

His new record provides another, glistening, heart-stirring, chapter.

Randy Weston’s web home

[audio:|titles=Blue Monk-Blue Moses]
Live version of Blue Monk and Blue Moses from a recent tour featuring the band from Weston's superb new record, The Storyteller.

(*)Below the fold, an essay on The School of Ellington republished from Mantra Modes

My default position with respect to my willingness to make broad distinctions about what moves me musically is to make the distinctions so broad that they do not accidentally draw boundaries which exclude important sources of inspiration, knowledge, and gratification. This default fits with my core bias: to me artistry is horizontal and reflects creativity and soulfulness. When documented we are privy to how this comes to be captured in a moment of time. This is against the vertical sensibility for which a kind of grading comes to the fore, through which sensemaking comes to elevate one document over the other document. I listen critically but not, usually, do I listen vertically.

My sensibility stands against most myth making, especially with respect to jazz. I do see the limited validity of the great man, or iconic musician, theory of jazz development, but, at the same time, it only makes its limited sense to me when it is framed in a specific social-economic context. Grading short of this context, seems senseless. The aesthetic context cannot stand alone.

With respect to this, horizontally, it makes sense that John Coltrane is an iconic musician, but that Booker Ervin and Bobby Hutcherson and Art Pepper and Jackie McLean, to name some examples, are artistic equals. Of course, if aesthetic judgments are loosed from mythic fundamentals, then those judgments are ‘made horizontal.’ To qualify this kind of equivalence is subjective.

My position is Deweyian; the listener completes the artistic transaction in his or her own way. A fellow jazzbo, not knowing me, and not knowing anything about where I am come from to jazz, recently disparaged late Coltrane. Although I accept the other ways of hearing through Coltrane’s artistry, for me, the transaction I get the most out of is with late Coltrane. Yet, while I understand somebody might not like late Coltrane, or feel Coltrane’s last years were musically inferior, I think they would be hard-pressed to defend this objectively, maybe by deploying the usual combination of myth-mongering and aesthetic judgment; with the latter stripped of its social-economic context. The latter is critical because it is in this context that the arbitration of cultual taste is ratified. I might better say ‘was’ ratified, because the landscape has become so altered over the years, since the prime of Blue Note, Orrin Keepnews and Bob Thiele passed–during the sixties.

My own tastes, given my way of hearing through jazz, nevertheless count on several narratives. Wholly subjectively, I report I love pianistic artistry above all. However this mild vertical sentiment, doesn’t attach other claims to it. It isn’t a vertical claim when I also say this love is most often oriented to a secondary narrative that apprehends what I term the School of Ellington. So, Duke Ellington and all the pianists beholden to him constitute an encompassing artistry, or meta-artistry. This all lays out horizontally, even if I subjectively recognize Thelonious Monk is preeminent within this school, is the artistry I have returned to over and over again, the ‘most.’ The grading with respect to Monk is subjective, he was not best, he was the artist who earned the most attention, from me.

Nor is the school of Ellington the best piano school. It’s just the broad form I am most attracted to. It matters little for me to parse distinctions betwixt Willie the Lion Smith, Count Basie, Carl Perkins, Herbie Nichols, Mal Waldron, Jaki Byard, Misha Mengelberg, Stan Tracey, Irene Schweizer, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ran Blake, Alexander Schlippenbach, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Few, Jessica Williams, Matthew Shipp, Geri Allen, Aki Takase, Randy Weston, and all the others of the hosts, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. The connecting threads are enough.

It is enough to hear the School of Ellington to be ancestral music, and for it to reflect the artist-in-the-moment pulling down the only true ‘vertical,’ that of inspired connection to what is at once universal, unique, tested, and ancient.

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